Are teachers *really* overpaid?

Posted: January 17, 2012 in post
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I guess it depends on whom you ask; to whom you compare; and whether or not you take an historic perspective comparing apples to apples as it were when making that comparison. If you are a right-wing think-tank, like the American Enterprise Institute, then as a matter of policy teachers “must” be overpaid. Surely they must because most public school teachers are represented by unions, and if you are a “good” Republican, union is an evil word and symbol of all that is wrong with America.

It is also a matter of policy for the far-right to mourn the woeful inadequacy of our public schools, so again, teachers must be overpaid because obviously, the teachers are the only problem in the system. Never-mind that it is the far-right who has taken money away from the schools. Never-mind that charter schools and private schools aren’t really any better (for the most part). Never-mind that the argument that charters and private schools “do more with less” is a blatant lie. Surely, public school teachers earn too much money.

Let’s look first at the comparisons made by the American Enterprise Institute. They argue that public school teachers are likely to earn substantially less if they leave “the field,” but they go on to include the (notably lower wages) of private school teachers in their comparison. If a teacher leaves the field, they have left the field, OK, so leave out the wages of the private school and charter school teachers. Those wages are irrelevant if the teacher has “left the field of education.”

Now, let’s look to my own (limited of course) experience. When I have not been employed as a teacher, I have always made more money. Always. As a transit bus driver. As a dryer operator. Especially as a $50K per year route salesman…. Not one of those jobs required more than a high school diploma. Yet “teachers are overpaid.”

The median wage (I hate averages because they are generally useless for comparisons of this type) for corporate trainers nationwide (something many teachers who leave the field do) are $54,160 annually according to, the “official” government data site for occupations. The median wage for a secondary school teacher is $53,230, again according to Onet, slightly lower. Wholesale and Retail buyers do earn slightly less than do teachers according to Onet, but certainly not 35-50 percent less…maybe 6% less. A first-line supervisor at a big-box retailer might make substantially less than the median teacher’s salary, but if we are talking about people who leave the field within two to three years, they are not earning anywhere near that “median” salary. In fact, without an MA, a teacher who leaves to become a first-line supervisor will probably experience a pay increase….

Ah, but the authors of the report from the American Enterprise Institute will quickly jump up to defend themselves here. They will state that these other employees don’t receive all the lucrative fringe benefits that teachers receive. Really? When was the last time any teacher you knew received an annual performance bonus? If they did receive an annual performance bonus (under merit pay) it certainly wasn’t 10% or more of their salary, which is customary in private enterprise. As for insurance, I can assure you that the benefits I have had in education have in only two cases been as good as or better than the insurance benefits I received in industry. But this is, of course, only my experience. I am not an overpaid researcher for a right-wing think tank who has never set foot in a classroom. Surely, if I were, I would know that teachers are “overpaid” and receive extraordinary benefits that no one in private industry receives.

There are further questions to ask here, for example, how much has the median wage for the other occupations here listed increased over the past forty years? How much have the wages of teachers increased over the past forty years?

The “median wage” in 1972 for a teacher with an M.A. or five years experience was about $8200 annually. Assuming that a staff attorney with five years experience earned about $20,000 annually (my father was such an attorney employed at a major firm with this level of experience at that time) a teacher earned about 41% of the attorney’s salary. Take a look at the 2011 ACC “In-House Attorney” survey and you will find that a corporate attorney today with similar experience would earn $161,171. Again, this is believable, as my father retired from this field in 2001. If we compare the median teacher’s salary today to that attorney’s salary, the teacher, at $53,230 now earns 33% of what the corporate attorney earns, down 8% from the 1972 comparison. Yes, I am comparing apples and peanuts here, but what should be clear is that attorneys have seen an increase in pay over the last 40 years while teachers have not. Using the CPI “inflation calculator” I am able to determine that $20,000 1972 dollars has the same buying power in 2011 as $108, 244…meaning that attorneys have effectively seen a 33% wage increase over what they would have earned in 1972. Meanwhile, the teacher is probably sitting stagnant with no net increase as $8200 in 1972 is equivalent to $44380 in 2011. This is approximately the amount that a teacher with an MA and five years experience would earn today. Yet, it is clear, that teachers are “overpaid.”

Again, it all depends on whom you ask and what comparisons are made. Compare public school teachers to private school teachers, as the American Enterprise Survey did, and of course, you will find what you want to find: teachers are “overpaid.” But compare to other fields outside of education where teachers often work? They are paid on par with those fields. Compare with another professional field like law? Lawyers earn substantially more than they did forty years ago. Teacher’s salaries have not increased. Were teachers overpaid in 1972? If not, then they are not overpaid today. You can make the statistics say whatever you want…. The real questions is, do we value education? If we do, we should look to increase wages, not decrease them.

  1. autumn says:

    “The real question is, do we value education? If we do, we should look to increase wages, not decrease them.”

    I couldn’t agree more. It is common for people to bemoan the educational system and blame it for turning out kids who don’t have the necessary skills to function in the world at large. I think that is because it is so much easier to place blame than to take action. I have several friends that work in the educational system at various different levels and they all agree the system needs an overhaul. I believe teachers should be reviews on an annual basis and given incentives to reach specific goals. There are very few teachers, especially in public schools that go into it for the money. I think many people think they are overpaid since they figure an average school day is shorter than the average work day. I don’t think they realize how much of “their own time” teachers spend working. In regards to luxurious summers off, most of them either have to have a second job or teach summer school. Not to mention the money they spend on supplies that the school does not have the budget to provide.

    I could go on and on including the many things I would like to see changed, but I will leave it at, “Yes, teachers need to be paid more not less.”

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